Study of mine pollution will continue | VailDaily.com

Study of mine pollution will continue

Nicole Frey

Bret Hartman/Vail Daily file photo Though fish and bugs are returning to a stretch of the Eagle River polluted by toxic mine waste, the state will continue to study the health of county's principal waterway.

AVON – Proponents of making the Eagle River as clean as possible cheered a recent announcement that levels for zinc in the river will continue to be studied under a temporary standard.The stretch of river in question is in the vicinity of the old Eagle Mine just south of Minturn, a pollutant-laden facility that has been the subject of intense cleanup efforts over the past 16 years. International media conglomerate Viacom took on most of the financial burden of the cleanup – estimated to have approached $80 million – because it acquired the land when it purchased the Paramount companies. Currently, the land is owned by the Ginn Companies, which is planning to develop it for a private ski and golf course community, but Viacom is still liable for the cleanup.The question of how much zinc from the old mine is allowed in the river is of great interest to those hoping to protect aquatic life. Although the pollutant is not necessarily harmful to humans, it is to fish and insects. At one point in the river’s history, few if any fish lived in this stretch of river, but the cleanup has brought back fish and bugs, especially brown trout.

But while Viacom is hoping to the current levels of zinc would be set as the standard, others argue more study is needed – particularly because fish numbers fell significantly 2004, and no one quite agrees as to why.The bottom line for Viacom is, if a permanent standard could be put in place, their primary obligation to continue paying for cleanup would mostly end, and the mine could possibly be removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund” list of heavily polluted areas.Wendy Naugle, who oversees the cleanup for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the decision to keep the temporary standard in place reflected community concerns.”If we established permanent standards, you could still change it, but I think that the community, they really wanted us to do temporary standards,” Naugle said. “And we feel more comfortable doing temporary standards because it really leaves the door open.” Studies show zinc is still affecting fish, and that previous miscalculations led to choosing temporary standards over permanent ones, Naugle said. Under a temporary standard, officials will be able to further analyze toxic zinc levels and count fish and insect to determine a best-case scenario for the life of the river.

Many in the room applauded the announcement.”It’s something that we pushed for because we’ve felt that there wasn’t enough evidence that we had reached the biological criteria to say the stream was healthy,” said Caroline Bradford with the Eagle River Watershed Council, an environmental watchdog group. But there’s more to the story, Bradford said, because where the temporary standard should be set hasn’t been established.”We’re certainly leaning toward a standard that promotes native fish,” she said. “But we are not so optimistic that the Water Quality Control Commission would consider that.”Currently the stretch of river supports brown trout, a non-native species that’s more resistant to zinc than sculpin, a native fish that has yet to return to the waters directly downstream of the mine. Bradford said she would like to see sculpin live and thrive in the waters again. Bob Trueblood with Eagle River Water and Sanitation said as long as studies continue, he’ll be pleased with temporary standards.

Trueblood, like others, assumed Viacom, will foot the bill for future studies, but attorney Hank Ipsen, whose Denver firm represents Viacom, said the company is not obligated to fund further biological monitoring. It will, however, continue to pay for ongoing maintenance and operation costs. “We don’t necessarily agree with the decision, but we don’t intend to oppose it,” Ipsen said. “We’ll do what’s recommended. We will support the division and recognize our obligations.”A hearing in front of the state’s Water Quality Commission to review the case is set for Dec. 12.Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or nfrey@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado